One time, many years ago, a monk was walking along in the forest. Suddenly a robber leapt out and demanded money, food, and so on. The monk, of course, had nothing to give; this infuriated the robber, who began ranting about all the travelers he’d beaten, how dangerous he was, etc. The monk listened, unfazed, for so long that eventually the robber became impressed. He wanted to know how the monk could be so apparently at ease in the face of such dire threat, when the robber himself — who was in a position of power — seemed unable to let go of his anger.
Eventually the robber confessed that stealing was an ingrained part of his personality. “Wherever I am, no matter who I’m with, when I see something, my urge is to steal it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something I need; just to see someone possessing anything makes me want it for myself. I’ve actually tried to stop stealing, but I just can’t. I know I’ll be caught one day and executed, but I simply can’t help myself. Is there anything I can do to make it stop?”
The monk pondered for a moment. “When you get the urge to steal, simply be aware of it,” he said.
The robber blinked. “That’s all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
Bemused, the robber parted ways with the monk.
A year or so later, they met up again on the road. The monk didn’t recognize his onetime adversary; the man had converted, and was now a monk as well — no longer a robber. “Somehow,” he said, “just being aware of my urge to steal helped it to fade and lose its power over me. How did you know it would work?”
The monk shrugged. “Every lust is a thought,” he said, and in that moment the former robber was enlightened.
These stories always seem to be about wandering monks. I don’t actually recall the full thread of this one, and I can’t seem to find the reference anywhere; the monk might have been Bodhidharma, who was the itinerant Buddhist that brought the practice to China.1 It really doesn’t matter what the particulars are, because the essence of the story is what I’m focusing on here.
This is the time of year when many of us make resolutions to change some aspect of ourselves that we don’t like. If you’re like me, a lot of those changes don’t really stick; they just end up being pavement on the road to hell. In my case, I’ve struggled most of my adult life with nicotine. That stuff is genuinely addictive — and for me, it wasn’t just the high, either. The mannerisms associated with smoking were pleasant for me.
I liked the ting my Zippo made when I flipped it open, the scent of the lighter fluid, the giddy washing buzz from the first few drags off the cigarette. I like the feeling of smoke in my lungs, and the way I could study the cherry as it glowed, the way I flicked the ash. It gave me something to do with my hands for a few minutes, gave me a way to take a break from whatever I was doing, gave me physical and psychological pleasure.
Of course it also made it harder to breathe, made me smell like an ashtray, and put me at risk for lung infections — not to mention the other, long-term side effects such as COPD, emphysema, cancer, and the possibility of setting my house on fire by falling asleep with a lit cigarette.2
Yet, like the robber, I couldn’t give up what I knew to be a genuinely unwise behavior. I tried aversion therapy; I tried nicotine replacement; I tried hypnosis. Nicotine replacement helped with the physical cravings, but the mannerisms remained — more accurately, the desire for the mannerisms remained.
I was genuinely stuck, mostly because I kept thinking about what I was rejecting. Each time I got a craving, I faced it with great inner resistance and resolve. The cravings would die down after a few minutes, but they always came back; they weren’t necessarily any stronger, but they didn’t seem to go away. After a while, they just tired me out, and I ended up with another pack of cigarettes.
I can put these events in past tense because things actually have changed, and almost all of that change was relative. That is, the way I saw things became different. With that alteration of inner perspective, a different understanding emerged. With the different understanding came a radically different response to the cravings.
This had to do with a progression of meditation practice, in which one learns to overcome thoughts or cravings that arise in the mind by patient observation of them, rather than obdurate resistance to them. Meditation isn’t just something for the cushion. It has practical effects in life.
One of the recurring themes in Buddhist thought is renunciation. I don’t like that word, because it’s not the correct one. When Buddhism started appearing in the English-speaking world, some terms were chosen that don’t translate the proper intention. Renunciation is one of those words.3
When I think of renunciation, the first image I get is of someone like Mother Teresa — a person sworn to living in abject poverty, with nothing but a couple changes of clothes, a bed, a rosary, a Bible, and that’s about all. Renunciation, to my mind, means deliberately turning away from something. Pushing it aside. Resisting it.
That takes a lot of effort, and might actually make it harder to resist whatever has been renounced. By exerting will to fight against an urge, I think we offer a kind of psychological energy to what we’re resisting. We push against it, which means — in the mind — that there’s actually something there to push against … when in fact, there isn’t.
A subtle understanding of the second noble truth4 lets us see what’s actually happening here. Since we’re made up of five aggregates,5 there really isn’t anything happening inside us that comes from elsewhere. Our cravings, then, are not an outside force; they are a part of our own bodies, minds, and consciousness. Thus, pushing against a craving is really just using one part of our internal energy (or will) to fight another part of our energy (or will).
From a Buddhist point of view, this is delusional — actually, it’s nonsensical. It’s like deciding you don’t like the shape of your nose, so you punch yourself in the face to change it. Fighting a craving is really just fighting yourself.
Rather than renunciation, I think we can apply the term letting go. The difference is subtle but crucial. When we let go of something, we don’t focus on it, cling to it, obsess over it. We just let it slide into our awareness, and just as readily let it slide away again. This doesn’t stop the craving from arising, but it does stop the feeding of energy into it. Since we’re not expending effort in dealing with it, it loses a major source of strength: Our belief that it actually exists as some sort of outside, invasive force.
During the practice of mindfulness meditation, one of the things we have to deal with is discursive thinking. The Theravada Buddhist monk, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, has advice on how to handle it. Whenever a powerful discursive thought arises, he suggests that we analyze it using these three criteria:6
1. What is it?
2. How intense is it?
3. How long does it last?
This is a wonderful way to separate oneself from a strong thought — or a powerful craving. We’re able to put the craving under a magnifying glass and really study it. The answers to these questions can be most interesting, because it might let us see where the craving actually arose from; and when we study the craving with the understanding that it came out of our own physical and mental responses to stimuli, we can see both that it’s ultimately sourced in no specific thing, and that it fades back into nothing with time.
Letting go is a remarkably subtle and powerful tool for handling virtually any thought or craving that we’d prefer not to have. Naturally, it requires that we have a few moments to actually look at what’s happening; this is where our monk’s advice to the thief comes into play. When you have a craving, simply be aware of it. Recognize it for what it is. In doing so, you’re already turning it into something other than a reflexive response to the world around you and within you; you’re bringing it to the level of consciousness and, ultimately, awareness. Eventually, being aware of a craving can be enough to let it fade to the point that it no longer troubles you.7
Letting go of a habit takes time, of course. It took time to make the habit form, and unlearning some of those responses is not usually an immediate process. Nonsmoking materials advise deep breathing, taking a short walk, munching celery, or chewing gum instead of smoking. If those things work for you in helping you to change the habit — to let go of the craving — well, then, great. As long as you’re not viewing them as a substitute for smoking, you won’t feel let down when they don’t satisfy in quite the same way as a cigarette.
There will also be setbacks. In our society, we tend to have a polar view of many things. If you’re on the road to recovery from cigarette addiction, slipping back into the habit can be crushing. You might tell yourself that you’re a failure, that the nicotine is too strong, that you don’t have what it takes.
Every once in a while, everyone stumbles, no matter where they’re walking and no matter how well they know the path. To sit down and decide that one cannot walk correctly because of one slip is the height of folly. Get back up, and keep on walking. You will get there if you do that; you won’t if you stop. That’s a rock-solid guarantee.
Changing a habit takes discipline and perseverance, but it’s within the grasp of any person capable of working with his own mind. Whether you’re tossing cigarettes into the gutter, turning away from drinking or other drugs, or changing your diet or exercise routine, it is my wish that you will be aware of the poor habit’s call when it arises, and that you will be able to open your hand, let go your grasp, and allow it to drift away like so much smoke.
3. There seem to be two frames of mind on this. Traditionalists seem to want to keep the poor translations and expect others to learn the subtleties of their meaning. Others prefer to drop the confusing terminology and use words that more accurately describe the intention. The root of the issue is that the first translations of Buddhist teaching and thought were performed by people with imperfect knowledge either of English, the source language, or both. ^
5. Buddhism sees each person as a collection of five aggregates, each of which is its own collection of subsystems. Out of those aggregates — body, sensation, perception, conceptualization, and consciousness — arises awareness, as an emergent property. ^
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